Practice in second language learning – interview with the editor

I was working with an individual student at about A2 level a few weeks back. Her speaking skills are relatively weak compared to her listening skills. I decided some job related drilling would be appropriate. As she was going through the drill I was hesitating about how much would be of use. Before the advent of the modern communicative approach, practice in language teaching was often associated with such mechanical type activities. And such exercises have been criticized as using decontextualized and inauthentic language. So on this point (decontextualised/inauthentic language) I was more confident (as the student was using example language related to her work) than on the value of the drilling i.e. repetitive production of language.

In a new book edited by Christian Jones – Practice in second language learning, practice is defined broadly as “specific activities in the second language, engaged in systematically, deliberately, with the goal of developing knowledge of and skills in the second language”. Although there is no explicit discussion on drilling the chapters within do cover many interesting issues related to practice.

Christian Jones kindly answered some questions about the book:

1. What made you decide there was a need for this book at this time?
Practice is a central part of second language teaching and learning in many contexts and yet remains somewhat under-researched. This seems something of a gap in the literature. Teachers and researchers need evidence about what seems to work and what doesn’t in various contexts and with different language areas/skills. There has not been a volume focused on this area since Robert DeKeyser’s book in 2007 and we wanted to add research to the field.

2. What would readers get from this book that they wouldn’t from DeKeyser 2007?
The DeKeyser book is, in my view, a very important contribution to our field. Robert DeKeyser was kind enough to add a foreword to this volume as we wanted to acknowledge his important work in this area. In our book, we have tried to explore practice as we might find it in classrooms, online and in periods of study abroad. We wanted to research practice in different second languages, contexts and using different reseach designs and we hope this will be of interest to a variety of teachers and researchers.

3. The definition given in the book for practice is described as “broadly defined”. What would a more narrowly defined version say?
A narrowly defined version of practice might view it something tied to a particular framework such as PPP. In fact, practice forms a part of many types of methodology. For example, in the TBLT literature, task repetition is undoubtedly a form of practice. A narrowly defined version might view it as something connected to learner output. In fact, we can and do talk of receptive and productive practice. A narrow version of practice might view it as connected only to skill building theories of second language acquisition but we can link it to several others, including the noticing hypothesis and input processing.

4. What in your view is the most outstanding question on the topic of practice (both for teaching and research)?
There are several! But here is one. Chapter one by Mike McCarthy and Jeanne McCarten makes the point that practising conversation and speaking practice are not the same. CLT often features activities we can term ‘speaking practice’ but it is something of a stretch to think that typical activities such as information gaps etc (as helpful as they are in some ways) allow learners to practise conversations. In order to develop conversational skills, learners will need to practise aspects of conversation such as good listenership and linking their turn to another speaker. We need to investigate ways to practise these things. One way is to research the effectiveness of an Illustration-Interaction-Induction (III) framework which McCarthy and McCarten suggest can be useful for practising aspects of conversation. Such research might be undertaken by comparing III to other methodologies.

I have yet to form a definite opinion on drilling but having read only the first two chapters of the book I hope any future opinion on drills and practice in general to be better informed.

Thanks for reading and do note I was kindly sent a review copy of the book. But don’t hold your breath for a proper review : )


Corpus Linguistics for Grammar – Christian Jones & Daniel Waller interview

CLgrammarFollowing on from James Thomas’s Discovering English with SketchEngine and Ivor Timmis’s Corpus Linguistics for ELT: Research & Practice I am delighted to add an interview with Christan Jones and Daniel Waller authors of Corpus Linguistics for Grammar: A guide for research.

An added bonus are the open access articles listed at the end of the interview. I am very grateful to Christian () and Daniel for taking time to answer my questions.

1. Can you relate some of your background(s)?

We’ve both been involved in ELT for over twenty years and we both worked as teachers and trainers abroad for around a decade; Chris in Japan, Thailand and the UK and Daniel in Turkey. We are now both senior lecturers at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan, Preston, UK),  where we’ve been involved in a number of programmes including MA and BA TESOL as well as EAP courses.

We both supervise research students and undertake research. Chris’s research is in the areas of spoken language, corpus-informed language teaching and lexis while Daniel focuses on written language, language testing (and the use of corpora in this area) and discourse. We’ve published a number of research papers in these areas and have listed some of these below. We’ve indicated which ones are open-access.

2. The focus in your book is on grammar could you give us a quick (or not so quick) description of how you define grammar in your book?

We could start by saying what grammar isn’t. It isn’t a set of prescriptive rules or the opinion of a self-appointed expert, which is what the popular press tend to bang on about when they consider grammar! Such approaches are inadequate in the definition of grammar and are frequently contradictory and unhelpful (we discuss some of these shortcomings in the book).  Grammar is defined in our book as being (a) descriptive rather than prescriptive (b) the analysis of form and function (c) linked at different levels (d) different in spoken and written contexts (e) a system which operates in contexts to make meaning (f) difficult to separate from vocabulary (g) open to choice.

The use of corpora has revolutionised the ways in which we are now able to explore language and grammar and provides opportunities to explore different modes of text (spoken or written) and different types of text. Any description of grammar must take these into account and part of what we wanted to do was to give readers the tools to carry out their own research into language. When someone is looking at a corpus of a particular type of text, they need to keep in mind the communicative purpose of the text and how the grammar is used to achieve this.

For example, a written text might have a number of complex sentences containing both main and subordinate clauses. It may do so in order to develop an argument but it can also be more complex because the expectation is that a reader has time to process the text, even though it is dense, unlike in spoken language. If we look at a corpus we can discover if there is a general tendency to use a particular pattern such as complex sentences across a number of texts and how it functions within these texts.

3. What corpora do you use in the book?

We have only used open-access corpora in the book including BYU-BNC, COCA, GloWbe, the Hong Kong Corpus of Spoken English. The reason for using open-access corpora was to enable readers to carry out their own examinations of grammar. We really want the book to be a tool for research.

4. Do you have any opinions on the public availability of corpora and whether wider access is something to push for?

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: We would say it’s essential for the development of good language teaching courses, materials and assessments as well as democratising the area of language research. To be fair to many of the big corpora, some like the BNC have allowed limited access for a long time.

5. The book is aimed at research so what can Language Teachers get out of it?

By using the book teachers can undertake small-scale investigations into a piece of language they are about to teach even if it is as simple as finding out which of two forms is the more frequent. We’ve all had situations in our teaching where we’ve come across a particular piece of language and wondered if a form is as frequent as it is made to appear in a text-book, or had a student come up and say ‘can I say X in this text’ and struggled with the answer. Corpora can help us with such questions. We hope the book might make teachers think again about what grammar is and what it is for.

For example, when we consider three forms of marry (marry, marries and married) we find that married is the most common form in both the BYU-BNC newspaper corpus and the COCA spoken corpus. But in the written corpus, the most common pattern is in non-defining relative clauses (Mark, who is married with two children, has been working for two years…). In the spoken corpus, the most common pattern is going to get married e.g. When are they going to get married?

We think that this shows that separating vocabulary and grammar is not always helpful because if a word is presented without its common grammatical patterns then students are left trying to fit the word into a structure and in fact words are patterned in particular ways. In the case of teachers, there is no reason why an initially small piece of research couldn’t become larger and ultimately a publication, so we hope the book will inspire teachers to become interested in investigating language.

6. Anything else you would like to add?

One of the things that got us interested in writing the book was the need for a book pitched at undergraduate students in their final year of their programme and those starting an MA, CELTA or DELTA programme who may not have had much exposure to corpus linguistics previously. We wanted to provide tools and examples to help these readers carry out their own investigations.

Sample Publications

Jones, C., & Waller, D. (2015). Corpus Linguistics for Grammar: A guide for Research. London: Routledge.

Jones, C. (2015).  In defence of teaching and acquiring formulaic sequences. ELT Journal, 69 (3), pp 319-322.

Golebiewksa, P., & Jones, C. (2014). The Teaching and Learning of Lexical Chunks: A Comparison of Observe Hypothesise Experiment and Presentation Practice Production. Journal of Linguistics and Language Teaching, 5 (1), pp.99–115. OPEN ACCESS

Jones, C., & Carter, R. (2014). Teaching spoken discourse markers explicitly: A comparison of III and PPP. International Journal of English Studies, 14 (1), pp.37–54. OPEN ACCESS

Jones, C., & Halenko, N.(2014). What makes a successful spoken request? Using corpus tools to analyse learner language in a UK EAP context. Journal of Applied Language Studies, 8(2), pp. 23–41. OPEN ACCESS

Jones, C., & Horak, T. (2014). Leave it out! The use of soap operas as models of spoken discourse in the ELT classroom. The Journal of Language Teaching and Learning, 4(1), pp.1–14. OPEN ACCESS

Jones, C, Waller, D., & Golebiewska, P. (2013). Defining successful spoken language at B2 Level: Findings from a corpus of learner test data. European Journal of Applied Linguistics and TEFL, 2(2), pp.29–45.

Waller, D., & Jones, C. (2012). Equipping TESOL trainees to teach through discourse. UCLan Journal of Pedagogic Research, 3, pp. 5–11. OPEN ACCESS